Gone Again!

I may get to see this scene in person, this week!  

By the time this is posted, I plan to be in San Francisco. Yes, I know I just started posting entries again.  Those reasons were highly stressful.  This reason is not.

The vacation was an unexpected opportunity, not to be missed! Passionate as I am about education reform, meeting deadlines and doing my work as usual is not a helpful way to enjoy a vacation.

So I hope you’ll enjoy this prize-winning view of the City by the Bay, until I return in a couple of weeks. While you’re at it, you might enjoy other views of US historic landmarks that won the 2005 contest, “Imaging Our National Heritage.” This view of the hillside, bay, cable cars and Alcatraz was photographed by Thomas Fake, and won first prize in the competition, which was sponsored by the National Historic Landmarks program of the National Park Service.

By the time I return, I hope to have been in fruitful contact with all of my digital-native respondents, and have one or more posts to offer, about ways that schools can respect the needs and perspectives of the current “digital” generation.

Respect for Military Families and their Students:

Recent publications paint an ugly picture

We’ve seen a lot of flag-waving recently.
How sincere is it, really?

Memorial Day. Flag Day. Independence Day. Elections coming soon.

Seems as if we’ve seen a whole lot of flag-waving and “support our troops” slogans, recently.  But how is that working out for our military families?

Anyone who’s been paying attention to the news has a pretty good idea of the answer to that.  The families of active-military personnel have been faced with repeated, extremely long deployments in recent years. Returning National Guard veterans often find their old jobs have been given to others, and all veterans are discovering than in this economy it’s extremely hard to find new ones.  Veterans’ mental health care, particularly in the case of PTSD sufferers, is frequently inadequate.

This is a dilapidated roof at Clarkmoor
Elementary at Ft. Lewis, WA
. Photo by
Emma Schwartz for iWatch News.

Now add to all that the fact that apparently their kids aren’t being at all well served in school, either.

Just this week, “Daddy, Why Is My School Falling Down?” was published in Newsweek. The article, based on a longer one by author Kristen Lombardi originally published in iWatch News, focuses on the dilapidated, often unhealthy and unsafe condition of many schools on US military bases.

This closet is part of a 73-year-old Nazi
barracks, now Boeblingen Elementary
on a US base in Germany.  Photo by
Jenny Hoff for iWatch News.

Reading these articles, I was repeatedly reminded of the horrifying schools for poor children, described in Jonathan Kozol’s landmark 1991 book, Savage Inequalities.  Leaks like “Niagara Falls,” cracked bricks, termite-infested walls, and backed-up toilets all sounded hauntingly familiar.

The principal of Geronimo Road Ele-
mentary in Ft. Sill, OK
 can slide his
finger into some of the wall cracks.
Photo: Emma Schwartz for iWatch News.

The situation is not entirely hopeless. The Department of Defense has set up a task force to inspect the schools on military bases, though of course that doesn’t necessarily mean better schools are coming anytime soon.  
But why has there ever been a question about replacing or repairing schools on military bases in a timely way, when there always seemed to be enough money to fund billion-dollar weapons systems the generals have said they don’t even need? 

Just a month earlier than the Lombardi report, Education Week published “The Need to Support Students from Military Families,” by Ron Avi Astor. This commentary outlines the difficulties students from military families of ten face in public schools, where there apparently is little consciousness of their situation and even less understanding.

According to Astor, the state of California has “created a military-connected school-survey module” to aid in “understanding the experiences of military students and parents in public schools.” The fact that other states have not yet “follow[ed] California’s lead” gives us a glimpse of the remaining gap.

Why on earth isn’t gaining such background information about all incoming students already standard operating procedure for schools everywhere? Such information is fundamental for any kind of responsive education practice, and essential for helping gauge a child’s “starting point.”

Jill Biden and Michelle Obama have
joined forces with Education Secretary
Arne Duncan to help military families.

Last January, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, launched an initiative focused on military-connected schools, which may eventually bear some fruit.

As an example of the needs they plan to address, according to the US Department of Education it is an issue for some public schools to allow students to be absent so they can greet parents who are returning from deployments.

I read this and wonder how anyone with an ounce of empathy can possibly question the logic of excusing such an absence. After all, one of the greatest stressors on military children is their parents’ absence–so much so, it can seriously affect grades and attendance.

We’ve been at war for a solid decade. Why in Heaven’s name are any of these issues still a problem?  In the name of decency and our country’s honor, how is it possible that they only now are in the the earliest stages of being addressed?

If ever a situation reeked of misplaced priorities, surely the plight of military families with school children is a prime example.

PHOTO CREDITS: The combined image of the US flag, the Statue of Liberty, and an eagle is from All Posters, where you can buy this image in several formats.  The 3 photos of dilapidated Pentagon-run schools by Emma Schwartz and Jenny Hoff are from iWatch News. The photo of Jill Biden and Michelle Obama is from Zimbio.

Pulled away for too long!

I apologize for the recent lack of posts.  I plead a perfect storm of obligations pulling me in other directions–but you should know I have not forgotten this blog! 

I’ve been at work gathering opinions from digital natives about changes they’d like to see in “the way school is done.” I think the series that will result from this could be interesting. 

Until then, however, at least you know I still care.

PHOTO CREDIT: Many thanks to Bradley William Whitney, and his Tumblr.com page!

Death of a Purple Elephant

Respect in the Real World: Case Study #2

Ali Spagnola‘s Purple Elephant with Flower gives the lie
to the creativity-crushing words of my friend’s teacher.

“I’m not creative,” she said.  “I’m not talented like that.”

She and I talked for a while about the ways in which people develop (or don’t) into artists, and she told me about third grade, in the small town where she grew up.

You see, third grade was where she learned most thoroughly that she was “not talented.”  In particular, she remembered the day her third grade teacher scolded her for a drawing she’d made. She’d never be a good artist, the teacher said, because she didn’t even know that elephants are not purple!  They are gray.

The teacher said this to a child who had only seen elephants a few times in pictures, and who had never traveled more than 25 miles from her small-town Midwestern home in her whole life, so far (though she later became an enthusiastic world traveler).

I had a sudden, powerful wish that I could reach back through time and throttle the teacher.  This woman taught my friend how to multiply and divide, how to write in cursive, how to spell dozens of words–but she also drove a big, heavy spike through the heart of her burgeoning creativity.

I wished I could go back and tell the teacher that real artists know for sure that elephants might be purple, and here’s what one would look like, if you saw it.

I wished I could tell her that a child’s inborn creativity grows from an imagination that learns it’s okay to look beyond accepted norms and think outrageous thoughts–and that it shrivels in blighted agony when crushed.

I wished I could tell her how desperately we need more creative thinkers, if we are to compete as a nation in the 21st century.

My friend’s third-grade teacher later retired and has since died, although her legacy clearly lives on.  Indeed, it is pointless to blame her without acknowledging that she was simply expressing a “truth” that surely she must have learned in the same painful way.  Without doubt, she abused her students’ creativity because her own had been just as ruthlessly stomped.

Nor is she an isolated example.  It’s easy to find her sisters and brothers in schools, homes, churches, and many other places, everywhere.  We express respect (or the lack thereof) in all kinds of ways.  One of the most prevalent ways we disrespect students (and in the process hamstring our own society) is by devastating children’s early creative efforts.

It is endemic in our school systems, because of the way they are currently set up to value conformity and submission above all else.  The Paradigm of “Control” kills creativity.  That is its very nature.  Only by bringing in a Paradigm of “Respect” will we and our schools be able to free ourselves from the iron grip of stunted imaginations and conventional thinking that can do nothing more than repeat the past.

Meanwhile, let’s observe a moment of silence for all the purple elephants we never got to see.

PICTURE CREDIT:  Many thanks to Ali Spagnola, for her painting Purple Elephant with Flower!  It is from her blog, Ali’s Art Adventure.

Respect in the Real World: A Case Study

In my last two posts to this blog, I made the argument that we need to replace what I see as a Paradigm of “Control” in our schools with one of “Respect.”

The title of this cartoon by Colby Jones is “Tolerance?”

“Fear and loathing cannot coexist with respect, ” I wrote.  “I mean mutual respect–that is, everyone in the system respects and genuinely honors the contributions that all parties bring to the table.  But I also, specifically, mean much greater respect for students and their families, and also for teachers.

But it’s one thing to ask for respect, or discuss it in the abstract.

It can be quite another in practice, especially when you are being asked to respect someone from another culture who is doing, saying, or wearing something you don’t understand.

I received an example of this via email, just yesterday. It came from a person who often sends me emails that might generously be described as “culturally insensitive.”  This one very rudely mocked the young, African-American subjects of several prom photos.

When I spoke with the sender, the reply was essentially, “Oh, come on. Those outfits are clearly not in good taste!”  Perhaps not, if you are looking at them through the “cultural lens” of a conservative, white, middle-class sense of propriety.

But that’s not the way the kids looked at them.  I know this, because, I have known many young people from a similar cultural background.  They have very little connection with a conservative, white, middle-class sense of propriety–but they are very creative.

So here’s a small challenge for you.  Suspend your preconceptions for a moment, and join me on a short photo tour.

All I ask is that you look at these beautiful young people, arrayed in their best finery, participating in a “milestone” event they’ll remember all their lives.  Just to keep you alert, I’ve included a few photos from a couple of other events that have been in the news lately.

Young women in extreme dresses

I think it is likely only one of these young women is wearing a dress she did not design herself (that includes Victoria Beckham in the upper left corner).  

Young men in unusual outfits
All of these outfits include interesting or extraordinary accessories, but I couldn’t find a single young prom-goer wearing spurs or carrying a sword.
Young ladies wearing creative hair styles
I’m guessing the young prom-goer at left could have a future as a hairdresser for Fashion Week.  What do you think?
You still may not like some of these fashion statements.  But I hope I’ve made my point that “weird” or “bizarre” is in the eyes of the beholder.  I hope you’ll also agree that the young prom-goers truly didn’t deserve to have their personal photos and homemade finery turned into the laughingstock of the Internet.
Educators must never forget respect.  Especially when we are relating to young people who are at an extremely vulnerable moment in their emotional lives, I think it is of absolute importance to ask, “where are they ‘coming from’?”  “What is their goal?”  It truly isn’t always to “get to us” (surprise: it’s not all about us!).  Sometimes it is simply to look their own personal version of fabulous.

PHOTO CREDITS: This post presented more than the ordinary challenges, when I tried to figure out how to attribute the prom photos.  I used the TinEye site to do a reverse search for them, but encountered a long list of joke sites.  Many of these photos have indeed been made the laughingstock of the Internet, on blog after blog.  I have no intention of boosting the circulation of any of them by adding a link here.
I do, however, want to thank Colby Jones for his cartoon, “Tolerance?” which I found on his SirColby website.  
The British Royal Wedding photos are from The Daily Beast. They include the work of photographers Pascal Le Segretain and Odd Anderson, AFP for the Young Women in Extreme Dresses collection, and Peter Macdiarmid and Ben Stansall, AFP for the Young Men in Unusual Outfits collection.  All are associated with Getty Images.  
Setting aside the girl with the “helicopter hair,” whose joke-site source shall remain in nameless shame, the three middle photos in the Young Ladies Wearing Creative Hair Styles collection are from Fashion Week, January 14, 2011, courtesy of the Onjer Hairstyle site (photographers not credited); the Crimped Hair Hat on the right end is the design of John Galliano, from the Christian Dior Show of Paris Fashion Week, Sept. 29, 2008, courtesy of The Frisky (AP photographer not credited).

How do the Paradigms of “Control” and “Respect” Differ?

19th century factory in Toronto

In my previous post I said, “if you are seeking to design a system that promotes creative curiosity, critical thinking skills, and a lifelong passion for learning, you can find vastly superior models to build upon than those of a 19th century factory or a prison.”  I went on from there to assert that respect is the key ingredient missing in today’s schools.

But what do I mean by that?  Respect . . . for whom?  And how do the Paradigms of “Control” and “Respect” differ?

First of all, I mean mutual respect–that is, everyone in the system respects and genuinely honors the contributions that all parties bring to the table.  But I also, specifically, mean much greater respect for students and their families, and also for teachers.

There are many contrasts we can draw between the two paradigms.  None of the thoughts I list below is complete: I intend to expand upon each in future posts.  But here are a few “snapshots” of some of the differences, as I see them.

Traditional school bureaucracies are by their nature “top-down” affairs.

Traditional school bureaucracy would have to stand on its head.  Years ago, my father told me that in his long education career he had observed an immutable order of things: that administrators set rules to suit their needs, teachers add rules to make their lives easier, and students are at the bottom of the heap.  In the graphic you’ll note I’ve added a few layers to that hierarchy, based on recent trends, but the principle remains sound.

This system by its nature cannot prioritize the students’ or their families’ needs first.  No matter how fervently or genuinely the adults in the system may protest that they’re “doing it for the kids’ benefit,” the actual truth is that the system serves its own needs first, and acts upon students–who have no input in the decision-making.

A master teacher and a student
from Tufts University work
together on a challenging problem.

The answer to “what is a class?” would change.  Public education systems in the U.S. have a long tradition of treating students kind of like standardized production runs, considering each class sort of like a “lot” produced during a specific time frame.

We all know that people learn at different rates and with different levels of capability, but in traditional classes all students are somehow (magically?) supposed to finish the same material at the same time.  In practice, this means some students “get” it right away, and then have to wait for all the others to come straggling in . . . while some never quite figure it out, but hope they can “fake it” well enough to get by.  This process doesn’t respect the students at all, in my opinion.

A better approach–one that respects the student’s time and needs–would take these natural variations into account.  The best motivation for learning is a moderate challenge that can be met with some effort.  Students don’t succeed too easily (and therefore get bored), but they also are not completely baffled and defeated by demands too far beyond their skill.  They work at what they’re learning until they master it, then move on to the next challenge.

Anyone who has played a well-crafted video game will recognize this approach.

It also is similar to the guiding principles of what educators call “standards-based” education.  Some schools have begun to try this idea.  Our own Kansas City (Mo) School District began phasing this approach in during the 2010-11 school year, on a trial basis in a few schools.  I believe this is an approach that should be explored more widely.

Parents in Tampa FL pick up their kids after

Schools’ daily schedules would become more flexible. You may be surprised to learn that school bus schedules normally dictate when schooldays start and end.  This is an outstanding example of the bureaucracy meeting its own needs first, with little regard to student needs.

Because of this priority alignment, most school schedules are radically out of sync with many students’ natural circadian rhythms, and often create a “latch key” situation for young children whose parents’ work schedules are different from the school schedule.

Under a Paradigm of “Respect,” much greater effort would be focused toward scheduling school days and events at times when students are alert, and on schedules that are in harmony with working parents’ job demands.

Passing period can be hectic for older students, and it is a
poor substitute for a break, in most cases.

The lengths of activities during school, and the number of distractions and time-wasting interruptions, would change.   Large portions of each school day are wasted on things that have little to do with education and a great deal to do with administrative needs.  Bell schedules enforce an unnatural sequence of work interruptions for students, with no regard for their individual learning processes.  They exist almost entirely for administrative convenience.

For example, being required to think about algebra for an arbitrary period of time, then abruptly being interrupted, forced to move, and next being required to think about something completely unrelated, such as history or language arts, is an unnatural and impersonal means of ordering students’ time that completely disregards their achievement of understanding, need for practice, or experience of “flow” in their work.  No system based on respect would do this to someone.

Young footballers in Northbook, IL
get some healthy exercise in a physical
education class.  Unfortunately, recent
budget cuts threaten art, music, and P.E.
most of all, despite their benefits.

Students’ needs would be respected, and recognized as important.  In many schools, preparation for standardized testing eats more and more of the school day, while recess, even for the youngest students, is being systematically cut shorter and shorter.

For older students there are very few breaks at all, other than passing periods, when they are expected to secure any books they need, get from one classroom to another (even if it’s several floors away), take care of restroom needs, and also do a little socializing if there’s time–all in 3-5 minutes.  This is scarcely on a par with the mandated break times at many workplaces.

Budget cutbacks and increased emphasis on subject areas targeted by mandated tests also have contributed to nationwide cutbacks in art, music, and physical education classes–thereby cutting back opportunities for students to switch up their routine, express themselves, and get some exercise.  A system that respected students’ needs would never make this tradeoff.

Students take a math exam at an
unidentified school.

Testing would be done for legitimate, learning-related purposes.  Testing doesn’t really need to be a high-stress, high-stakes affair that requires massive amounts of money, effort, and time, although a good deal of today’s “testing experience” is precisely that.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has mandated sweeping standardized testing programs that (1) are not pedagogically helpful in any way, and that (2) in practice have functioned to penalize ever more schools throughout the US.

A classic “bell curve” shows a
normal distribution of results.

Logic alone should tell us that the NCLB Act’s requirement for all children to reach “proficiency” in reading and math by an arbitrary date (the 2013-14 school year) is an impossible goal, a fool’s errand.  Unless we can somehow find a way to turn the bell curve into an L shape on the “high” end, or unless we move to Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average,” no school with actual children in it can achieve 100% “proficiency” (whatever that is: definitions vary).

Real testing–respectful testing–focuses on the goal of discovering what the student has already learned, and what s/he still needs to know.  This keeps the teacher from wasting the student’s time with things s/he already knows, and helps focus lessons on things the student still needs to know.

Pedagogically valid tests help teachers evaluate what should be incorporated in the lessons to come, so the student can achieve mastery of the topic under study.  Ideally, the teacher should write his or her “final” first, based on the learning objectives for the class.  All the lessons should be structured to help answer the question, “how can I help the student learn what s/he must know to meet these learning objectives (and, incidentally, ace this test)?” The best test is all about the student, and helping the student learn.

It’s radical, I know.  And the practicality of some of the things I am proposing raises serious questions.  I hope you will continue to read along with me, as I attempt to outline ways that we might just be able to pull this off.

PHOTO CREDITS: The image of the 19th century Abell Street factory in Toronto, ON is from the Heritage Canada Foundation. The “Top-Down Hierarchy” chart is copyright 2011 by Jan Sherrell Gephardt, created for this post.  The photo of the Tufts University student and her mentor in the STOMP program is from Teachers EFGI.  The photo of the hectic passing period is from the +Plus Magazine . . . Living Mathematics website.  The photo of soccer-playing kids in Northbrook, IL is from the Northbrook School District.  The photo of the math exam is from The Situationist blog.  The graph showing a classic bell curve is from the University of Kansas Medical Center website.  

If Not “Control,” then What?

It’s enough to make a principal commiserate with Moammar Gaddafi.

Fires in trashcans
at SWECC have
occupied the
Kansas City Fire
Dept. many times
since August.

All too many of our schools are teetering on the edge of violent anarchy, these days.  In Kansas City, we have kind of a “poster child school” in regard to school chaos. Southwest Early College Campus was conceived as a college-prep magnet, but last fall it was merged with another urban high school during a massive consolidation in the district.

It is fair to say the merger did not go smoothly.  Since August we’ve seen multiple fires, countless fights and arrests, and a sad procession of principals who arrive full of plans and leave a few months later in defeat.  They’re on their third one now, but he’s already announced he’s leaving at semester’s end.

So, honestly.  DO I still really think we need to move away from the Paradigm of “Control” that I identified in my April 2 and April 7 posts?

School can erupt into a place of violence with shocking ease.  L-R: a student is arrested in the library at the University of  Montana; students in India join a revolt against a professor; the aftermath of vandalism in a Wyoming school.

You bet I do.  I think the Paradigm of “Control” is the taproot feeding this whole contemporary downward spiral of violence and low achievement.  This is because the Paradigm of “Control” was born of fear and loathing, and it continues to be perpetuated by fear and loathing.

Remember that back at the dawn of US public schooling in the mid-19th century, one of the most compelling reasons why industrialists backed the public education movement was protection.  Rich white people genuinely needed protection from roving gangs of juvenile delinquents.

19th century gangs of juvenile delinquents in Northeastern cities were possibly even more numerous and dangerous than the gangs we have today.  Because everyone lived near each other in cities then, they also posed a more immediate threat to rich white people.  This inspired influential support for new laws mandating compulsory universal education.

The uncontrolled bands of young people that vandalized and stole things were offspring of the workers who toiled all day and half the night in the mills and factories of the time.  Their parents couldn’t supervise them, because they weren’t free to do so.

Factory owners already controlled the parents’ lives.  Confining and controlling the kids probably seemed like a logical extension, and a good idea.  Better yet, it served multiple purposes: it sounded benevolent, it taught children basic skills, and–not incidentally–it kept them off the streets.

And really–what’s wrong with that?  Educating kids while keeping them out of trouble hardly sounds like a Work of Evil.  I’m not saying it is.

What I am saying is that if you are seeking to design a system that promotes creative curiosity, critical thinking skills, and a lifelong passion for learning, you can find vastly superior models to build upon than those of a 19th century factory or a prison.

I believe there’s a key ingredient missing, in the Paradigm of “Control”–a vitally important element called RESPECT.  Fear and loathing cannot coexist with respect.

And without feeling respected and affirmed, it’s hideously difficult for a child to confidently try new things, expand his/her vision, or explore the fearsomely wonderful world of learning.

PHOTO CREDITS: Trashcan fire demo by the National Fire Sprinkler Association; University of Montana student arrest from Indy Media; student mob attacking professor from the Times of India Online; vandalized school library in Wyoming from Muskegon News Archive of MLIVE; 19th century street gang from The Young Campaigner blog; 21st century gang members from Gang’s Dangerous Life website; “Respect” graphic from Jemima’s Journal blog, by Jemima Kameyo.